Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: The voices of Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberger, David Ogden Stiers
MPAA Rating: (for some scary moments)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 12/20/02 (limited); 3/28/03 (re-release)
Review by Mark Dujsik
I hate to gush in the first sentence of a review, but I absolutely love this film. Now that it's out of the way, you can expect similar sentiments to follow. Spirited Away plays out like the greatest children's novel never written. I feel hesitant about that thought, because the film is so imaginative, so inspired, I have a hard time believing it was not adapted from any sort of source material. No, I learn it is primarily the creation of Hayao Miyazaki, the man behind some of the most popular Japanese cinema and two animated masterworks, Princess Mononoke and now this. Indeed, Spirited Away is the highest grossing domestic film in Japan, and now it comes to the States in a newly dubbed version from Disney. Just like some of its famous literary counterparts, the film is quite episodic, each chapter giving us some new marvel to contemplate and savor. Miyazaki gives us and his heroine a wonderfully wicked, entirely twisted, and occasionally demented world to explore, much like Lewis Carroll's Alice wandering around Wonderland. Similarly, the story is set in a specific time and place (modern-day Japan, specifically), but even so, it remains timeless and universal. And that, my friends, is a sign of something extraordinary.
The setup is so simple and obvious and yet so endearing and full of promise that to reveal any more than the basic exposition in a plot summary would be a great disservice. A ten-year-old girl named Chihiro (voice of Daveigh Chase) is on her way to her family's new suburban house with her father (voice of Michael Chiklis) and mother (voice of Lauren Holly). She is quite despondent about the move and spends the car ride quietly sulking in the back seat. Of course, along the way, her father decides to take a shortcut down a dirt road through the forest, and they discover a dark passageway that seems to be pulling them in. On the other side lies an abandoned amusement park. There's a pleasant odor coming from somewhere in the area, and of course, the parents are incredibly hungry. In the vacant fair grounds, they discover a feast at one of the unattended tents, and while they stuff themselves, Chihiro wanders away to explore. As night falls, she meets a young man named Haku (voice of Jason Marsden), who warns her to leave immediately. As darkness falls upon the park, spirits begin to appear, and when she returns to her parents, she is shocked to discover that they have turned into pigs.
So now Chihiro is stuck alone in the spirit world, where no one but Haku seems to willing to help her. What follows is a series of adventures and meetings that serve very little in terms of plotting but immensely in the development of this mysterious world. And such an astonishing world it is, too. I would hate to turn my description of it into a list of those things that still occupy my memory, but there's little way around it. Chihiro ends up working in a bath house where spirits come to replenish themselves. There's Yubaba (voice of Suzanne Pleshette), the cantankerous boss of the establishment, a woman with an oversized head who can transmogrify into a bird of sorts. Her baby is an enormous shut-in, who shakes the walls and knocks everything over when he's upset. The male workers seem to be frogs, and there is an important character in the form of a talking frog. There's boiler room operator with four, elastic arms who is helped by a multitude of living soot. Then there's a wonderfully curious creature called No-Face, an ethereal black mass who wears a Noh mask. There's a delightfully shocking moment when we learn No-Face's true nature as a seemingly soulless but entirely misunderstood monster.
That moment and the continuing development of No-Face are part of a continuing level of complexity to the tale, which hints at layers of depth below its surface whimsy and childish fantasy. Like all great children's books, the film has an overwhelming mystique to it, as if everything we see represents something or someone significant and timely—like some big secret the author wants us to figure out—and just like all those allegories of the past, there's a great desire to try and discover the underlying significance and an equally great reluctance to do so, in fear that some of the magic will be lost. There's much going on here on that level—some of it clear and the rest of it enigmatic. Social commentary is prevalent. First and foremost is Chihiro's need for a job, a seemingly obvious critique of child labor. She must change her name to Sen, and the fate of people in her situation is to forget one's name and, in effect, lose one's identity. There's also the inability for spirits and humans to coexist. Spirits don't care much for humans, although it's fairly understandable why. In one scene, a stink spirit comes in for cleansing, but we soon learn that it is really a heavily polluted river spirit.
On an artistic level, the film is a triumph; there are so many beautiful images gracing the screen. Each time you focus on the film for its visuals, you realize that the image on the screen could easily be framed and hung on your wall, if not the wall of a museum. There's a single shot of Chihiro following train tracks that run through the sea, so that when seen at distance, as it is in this particular shot, she appears to be walking on water. Miyazaki and his animators integrate traditional hand-drawn animation with modern computer animation to a level that is subtler and more effective than anything that has come before. State-side, the production team has done a terrific job dubbing the film and casting the English voice talent. Even so, I'd rather see the film with the original Japanese track (thank you, DVD).Even more basic, though, Spirited Away is affecting on the character level. At its heart, this is a film about a little girl who's scared of everything growing up and gaining courage. It's a great lesson for children, and certainly anyone of any age can relate to it as well—either because of present troubles or through reminiscence. Some films, you watch; others, you experience. Spirited Away is most definitely in the latter category; it's much more than a film. It's a genuine work of art.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.